Ulil Amr, Bayat and Voting


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O my Allah make me attend to Your cause, sincerely, in every respect following in Husain’s footsteps in this world and the Hereafter – ( allahumma ja’lnee I’ndaka wajeehan bil husayne fiddunyaa wal aaakherate) – Ziyarat Ashura

 Ulil Amr, Bayat and Voting

One of the major reasons or events that lead to the events at Karbala was related to the concept of Ulil Amr.

In Qur’an, 4:59, it says “O you who believe! Obey Allah, and obey the Messenger and “ulil amr” – those who are authorized to command from among you.” From hadith in which the Holy Prophet (saw) explained this verse, we know the ulil amr are those appointed by Allah swt, particularly the Imams (sa) of the Ahlulbayt (sa). It is necessary for everyone to seek out for themselves the truth of who are “ those who are authorized to command from among you.”

Imam ‘Ali (as) and Imam Hasan (as) did not recognize anyone as ulil amr other than themselves. Even though they may not have had political rule at any or every time, they believed that they had religious authority over mankind as per Qur’an 4:59, according to the pronouncement of the Prophet (saw) by the command of Allah swt. So they continued to guide people as the religious leaders of the Ummah.

Yazid son of Muawiyah was well-known as a tyrant, and a corrupt ruler. He demanded bayat (oath of allegiance) from Imam Husain (as). He wanted Imam Husain (as) to swear fealty to him as ulil amr. Imam Husain (as) was obliged to refuse because it would be a lie against the appointment and commandment of God to do so, because Yazid was a tyrant, and because if he did so, then the people forever after would be permanently confused as to the real Islam by this recognizing and giving Islamic authority to one furthest from Islam.

It is very clear that an oath of allegiance (bayat) is a serious matter because it indicates support of someone’s agendas and practices. Particularly in the case of Imam Husain (as), to whom believers looked for guidance, giving an oath of allegiance would signal to the common people a direction to go. If Imam (as) is designated by Allah swt as ulil amr, then it is not something Imam (as) or anyone else can give away. None of the Imams (sa) did so, at the cost of their lives for the generations following Husain (as), and not only Husain (as) was faced with this conflict, but it was a source of conflict for the Imams (as) who succeeded him as well.

Given the importance associated with bayat, I think it is wise for us today to examine the concept of voting carefully. A vote is perhaps not as strong as bayat, because it may indicate support rather than allegiance, but that difference may be a minor or even an imagined one, as by voting for someone we are in essence giving them allegiance for their “rule” in whatever office they run for. We may later take that allegiance away, so a vote may be less permanent than bayat.

However, a vote can have lasting and far-reaching consequences. It is known that many Muslims voted for George W. Bush in his first presidential election. In that term, the president entered the U.S. into war in Afghanistan and Iraq, took away numerous civil liberties in the name of security, and committed many more injustices. The president could try to claim that U.S. Muslims supported his actions because they had voted for him.

A vote for a political candidate, like bayat, is a very serious matter and should not be taken lightly. The vote of a Muslim for a candidate should not be for someone who is less than worthy for the position, even if no worthy candidate is apparent. It is possible we could be held to account for whom who gave our votes and allegiances.

There are other kinds of voting besides voting for candidates, and that is voting on issues. In that realm it would seem we as Muslims have a duty to vote for whatever is in line with Islam and against whatever is contrary to Islam. When I say whatever is in line with Islam, I mean that which observes people’s rights and does not oppress, that which would be in accordance with true Islam.

The modern dilemma is that democracy is taken as the gold standard of the day, but democracy is not the way of Allah swt. Since the time of Adam (as), Allah swt has appointed leaders and their successors, and the leaders announced their successors in accordance with the will of Allah swt. Democracy is preached as a process that helps ensure good leaders, but in practice it does nothing of the sort. A king who inherits his rule is no less likely to be judged as a quality ruler than someone voted in by the people.

Today many, many Muslims have in essence given their bayat to democracy. This is one of the greatest tragedies and mistakes of the modern era. But we owe our bayat only to Allah swt, the Prophet (saw) and ulil amr. The Qur’an itself tells us so (4:59). We cannot give bayat to both democracy and to the way of Allah swt, for they are not the same way. Either our allegiance, our minds, our hearts, our souls, our lives are given and dedicated to the way of Allah swt or to another way.

Imam Husain (as) and 72 honorable souls with him gave their lives for Allah swt’s way. They gave their lives that we may be able today to find that way and follow it rather than it being lost to Yazid’s horrible way. If we do not take the task to find the right path and adhere to it entirely, then we belittle and refuse their sacrifice. If we do not give our allegiance to those worthy of ulil amr, those bestowed that rank by Allah swt, then we turn away from the right path. And giving allegiance is not a matter of word only. To the contrary, allegiance by word only is no allegiance at all – it is hypocrisy.

The crux of our duty thus lies in investigating and determining who Allah swt has appointed as ulil amr even in this age and then dedicating every aspect of our lives to obeying Allah swt, the Prophet (saw) and ulil amr. Obedience to whomever is ulil amr would never in any way contradict Allah swt or the Prophet (saw), because obedience to one and to all is the same. One cannot obey Allah swt without obeying the Prophet (saw), and one cannot obey Allah swt without obeying ulil amr.
This is the essence of what I think Karbala is about, both in the era of Imam Husain (as) and in today’s era. This is why I think Karbala is commemorated every year with great fervor amongst the Shia. There is no doubt that love and allegiance, and thus bayat, are closely connected matters.

It is not the way of Allah swt to call for allegiance by us to someone who is not worthy and deserving of our love. True bayat requires that we love the one to whom we give our allegiance, because without the love the bayat is incomplete. Obedience to Allah swt absent the love of Allah swt is incomplete; obedience to the Prophet (saw) absent the love of the Prophet (saw) is incomplete, and obedience to ulil amr (as) absent the love of ulil amr is also incomplete.

If we love someone, then we feel joy at his joys and pain and at his pains and we take care to add joy to his joy and avoid adding pain to his pain. We take care to remember and appreciate whatever he has done for us, and we try to do good for him as well. The Qur’an says that those martyred in the way of Allah swt are not dead, they only appear so to us. But whether someone is alive or not alive, love can continue. If someone is alive today and then not alive tomorrow, we do not love him today and then stop loving him tomorrow. If we ever truly loved someone when he was alive, then we continue to love him when he is no longer with us.

The followers of the right path transcend time. It does not matter if we did not meet someone personally. If Imam Husain (as) was ulil amr of his time, then he is worthy of our love and allegiance even today, just as the ulil amr of our age is still worthy. To do respect of either of them, we have to be devoted to both because their authority is the same authority, their religion is the same religion, their path is the same path.

As a community we need to take care not to separate things from their roots. Whatever we do to commemorate Karbala, that commemoration is not for its own sake. That commemoration has its roots in love, in bayat, in ulil amr. We have duties to fulfill that go far beyond shedding tears, and if we shed tears only and forget the rest we have forgotten everything.

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